Alice Kahrmann talks to Rob Solomon of GoFundMe, the UK's number 1 personal funding website.

When there’s something wrong in the neighbourhood? Who you gonna call? No not Ghostbusters (though praise the Lord it’s almost Halloween). No, if you’re a large company intent on scaling to even greater heights but something about the current equation is working, but failing to unleash the Technicolour at the end of the yellow brick road, it’s Rob Solomon you gotta call, and for good reason. Currently the CEO of GoFundMe, one of the most innovatively disruptive crowdfunding sites on the web (more of this later), he’s the man the MD turns to when he wants to close the gap between good and great not to mention eschew any ghosts of middling productivity.

Solomon does for the tech company what Henry Ford did for the motor factory, assessing due process and then innovatively disrupting it. Tequila shots? First meetings in Sombreros? Check. This was Solomon’s attitude when brought in to improve the auspices of Groupon (the discount website) where prior to GoFundMe, he was President and COO for several years. Thousands were hired, the company rolled out into 43 countries and became the fastest growing company in history. ‘It was crazy,’ Solomon says, ‘A rollercoaster of ups and downs.’

That’s not to say swift and sizeable expansion isn’t without its challenges; ‘The speed at which we were moving; it was a very competitive phase, some people refer to it as a ‘landgrab phase’. We decided to create as much surface area as possible, by creating offerings in every city in North America, every major and minor city and then start thinking about how to roll it out into Europe and Latin America.’

Hiring of course was the skill that knitted this hyper growth quilt together. ’People in tech startups are the most important thing, product market fit is critical, but once you get there (if you don’t have product market fit you won’t get anywhere), it’s about figuring out what kind of people you need, and figuring out the culture you want the company to have. The perfect mix of people are incredibly adept at what they do, can add value right away and can fit into the culture without being a detractor.’

At university Solomon studied history, ‘Some people would say it didn’t prepare me for anything but I would make the argument that it prepared me for almost anything.’ In time he ended up at Electronic Arts, at the time the world’s largest video games company. ‘It was a great training ground in how to work in a technology environment that’s building products suited to consumers… I started at the bottom; I was a games tester, and testerless service rep, we would test a game and then they would throw us on the phone for about eight weeks where we would engage with some pretty tough customers.’

For those hoping to follow in his footsteps: ‘I would advise them to keep going… Get rooted in technology. In the old days reading, writing, arythmetic, studying a foreign language were the most critical things, but we’re not doing a great job in many of the educational systems of getting people to be conversant in the new languages, which are how to code a computer etc. It’s going to be a very important skill to have in the future.’

This early grounding in tech also led Solomon to his later passion, investing in startups. ‘I’d advise most people not to!’ he says. ‘It’s a little bit of a fool’s errand. I say that somewhat jokingly, because sometimes, once in a while you get lucky. I like to find people who are passionate about tackling a big problem and who have the drive to bring a new twist or disruption to market.’

‘Most people have ideas but aren’t good at executing,’ Solomon muses. ‘When you find the right person who’s tackling the right problem, that’s the perfect combination. They have to have the kind of personality where they will push through anything to make it happen. It’s not so much the idea or the market space, the most important thing is a person who you have conviction in and who will do whatever it takes to be successful.’

‘I was fortunate to invest in Slack,’ Solomon says of his most successful investment thus far. ‘It started out as a video game company, it wasn’t going to be a collaboration and communications software company, but they didn’t make it as a game company. They still had some money in the bank so they created a great internal communications product. They (accidentally) brought this to market and became one of the fastest growing software to service companies in the world. The founder, Stuart Butterfield created Flickr and is one of the greatest product minds out there, we were able to back him and we got a big surprise. You never know what’s going to happen in Startup Land. Trials and tribulations lead to some big accidental wins.’

‘I love what the guys at Airbnb have done,’ he says of others innovating in their fields. ‘They have really created a new market out of nowhere and they are going to be a gigantic company that will take market share away from hotels. They’re turning home owners into entrepreneurs.’

Where does Solomon get his business ideas I wonder? From books? Films? TV shows? ‘This is a little bit unconventional and there are some conventions in here that I wouldn’t espouse to, but reading The Godfather as a business book is a very valuable thing to do. Also a little cliché, but Good to Great by Jim Collins is a very good business book. It really shows you what it takes to be a great company and the patterns of great companies and what they have in common. The great ones all have a special strand of DNA. That’s important to understand.’

So what next for GoFundMe? Solomon’s day job if you will? He wants it to ‘become one of the strongest brands in the world, to do in the giving space what Linkedin did for jobs, what Netflix has done for entertainment. I want it to be the platform that defines the disruption of what is taking place in the fundraising space.’

Every thirty seconds a new campaign starts up. One of the most rewarding for Solomon was Saving Eliza. ‘A little girl was born with a very rare medical condition called San Fillipo Syndrome, and there is no known cure. A father started a campaign for medical research and it’s raised over two million dollars. Before GoFundMe that would not have been possible. It would have taken grant writing and a doctor and a foundation…’ But no more. Just this week in the UK over £50,000 has been raised from one day to the next to send beloved soap actress Leah Bracknell (of Emmerdale fame) to Germany for vital, possibly life saving treatment for lung cancer. All thanks to thousands of donations coming in via the platform. So who you gonna call? GoFundMe!

Alice Kahrmann, Contributing Editor

October 2016